Good Guy Gamble

What to Expect From Indonesia's Jokowi

Indonesia's presidential candidate Joko Widodo smiles during a speech in Serang, Indonesia, July 16, 2014.
Indonesia's presidential candidate Joko Widodo smiles during a speech in Serang, Indonesia, July 16, 2014. (Beawiharta / Courtesy Reuters)

In Indonesia, nice guys can finish first.

At least that was the preliminary verdict of the nation’s presidential election on July 9. And that could be good news for Indonesia -- and also for Southeast Asia, the United States, and the world. The “could,” of course, comes with two big caveats: The initial results must be borne out by the final tally (due by July 22) and the losing candidate must accept that he has lost. 

In many other countries, electoral contests seem to degenerate into weary struggles between uninspiring and barely-distinguishable candidates, with voters selecting whichever personality they consider marginally less bad. Not so in Indonesia, where both rivals inspired deep-seated enthusiasm. And the differences between the two could hardly have been starker.

Joko Widodo, who is leading in most early counts, is the administrator of the sprawling capital city of Jakarta. His humble background, a plus for his poorest constituents, and an impressive track record as a can-do technocrat, which played well with middle-class voters, put him up by nearly 40 points in early opinion polls. Jokowi (as he is universally known) promised to bring the same humility, incorruptibility, and get-it-done outlook to the national stage. Prabowo Subianto, his opponent, is his polar opposite: A multimillionaire scion of an old-regime dynasty, former son-in-law of the deposed dictator Suharto, and a hard-line general who was cashiered from the army for kidnapping and torturing democracy activists. He has promised to bring military decisiveness to the public arena. The outgoing president, Susilo Bambang Yudhono, is himself a former general, however, and many voters are frustrated with his perceived lassitude and indecisiveness.

Prabowo was down in the polls throughout most of the campaign, but on election day, the contest was too close to call. And even if Jokowi does win (preliminary tallies predict that will happen by a narrow margin), Prabowo is not guaranteed to go quietly. The stakes could hardly be higher: Since the fall of Suharto in 1998, Indonesia has been a showpiece of democracy in Asia. The final count will either solidify this narrative, or toss it right out the window.

So, what happened?

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